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Top 10 nations in adult literacy: Japan and Finland lead, U.S. lags

Posting in Education

While many observers are sounding the alarms about shortages of STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math), there is a yawning gap of even more basic workplace literacy skills in many nations.

Photo credit: NASA

To compete in a global economy, companies and nations need workers who are highly literate in basic skill areas -- including literacy, reading components, math, and problem solving. This is an issue in many nations, according to a new a report on adult literacy worldwide compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. Japan, Australia, and European nations top the list, but the United States scored below the global average, the report finds.

The report, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, contains on results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) -- a cyclical,  large-scale study of adult skills and life experience focusing on education and employment. Within the United States, the study was conducted on a nationally representative sample of 5,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65. Similar nationally representative samples of adults were surveyed in each of the 22 other participating countries.

The PIAAC tracks literacy, reading components, numeracy, and problem solving -- cognitive and workplace skills necessary for successful participation in 21st-century society and the global economy. PIAAC measures relationships between individuals’ educational background, workplace experiences and skills, occupational attainment, use of information and communication technology, and cognitive skills in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

The average score across nations was 273 on a scale of 500. The score for the U.S. was 270.

Here are the top nations for adult literacy rates, based on average scores on the PIAAC literacy scale for adults age 16 to 65, by participating country:

  1. Japan (296)
  2. Finland (288)
  3. Netherlands (284)
  4. Australia (280)
  5. Sweden (279)
  6. Norway (278)
  7. Estonia (276)
  8. Belgium (275)
  9. Czech Republic (274)
  10. Slovak Republic (274)

The report describes why basic skills are essential for working and advancing in the current digital  economy:

"The Internet has increased instantaneous access to large amounts of information and has  expanded instant voice, text, and graphics capabilities across the globe. In order to effectively operate in these environments, it is necessary to have knowledge of how various technological environments are structured (e.g., an understanding of the basics of the environment, including how to use command names, drop-down menus, naming protocols for files and folders, and links in a web page); and the ability to interact effectively with digital information; understand electronic texts, images, graphics, and numerical data; and locate, evaluate, and critically judge the validity, accuracy, and appropriateness of the accessed information."

— By on October 22, 2013, 4:18 PM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure